Path to #GetBack [Multimedia]

Isabel Hanewicz and Michelle Santacreu

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Interactive by Michelle Santacreu, Story, Photos and Videos by Isabel Hanewicz
Flag football is not a sport for the apathetic. If there’s one thing that defines the 2014 state championship winning team, passion is it, says head coach Joshua Saunders.

Without passion, it’s hard to imagine the team would have the accolades they’ve garnered over the years. They have a club league so they can practice year round, because Saunders knows that’s what the other top programs do.

“The season’s so short,” said Saunders, who is in his ninth year as head coach. “You play all of your games in a month, so if that was the only time you played it would be almost impossible to be really, really good.”

During their study halls or free periods, players come to his classroom to learn plays or talk strategy. That’s not to say they push academics to the side; Robinson was named the academic state champions in 2013 and 2014.

At their essence, they are a team of multitaskers.

Last year, 90% of the players played another sport, some in the same season as flag.”

Last year, 90% of the players played another sport, some in the same season as flag. Out of their 24-person state championship team, only one was not a multi-sport athlete.

One of last year’s seniors, Kylee Gorngpratum, was a captain for both flag and volleyball. Named the 2014 Florida Dairy Farmers Miss Flag Football, she now plays volleyball for the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

On the first day of tryouts, for instance, there were two noticeable groups absent: club volleyball players, who were at an all-day tournament, and the psychology students, who were at a Busch Gardens field trip.

Saunders was not too concerned.

“I know that they are committed,” he said. “I know that the second [the volleyball tournament] ends, whether they win that whole thing or lose or whatever they do they’re getting in the car and they’re driving, and they’re putting their cleats on in the car.”

“They all find a way to make it work.”

Schedule conflicts are all too familiar to varsity player Kayla Knowlton (‘16).

They all find a way to make it work”

— Coach Saunders on his multi-sport athletes

A JV captain in 2014, she played in the state quarterfinals game, but left before the state finals because she had committed to attend a NJROTC event that night.

She left Tallahassee in tears.

“It was very, very heartbreaking,” said Knowlton. “I have to be there this year. I’m not doing anything [besides states]. My entire schedule is clear in May.”

When talking to Knowlton, or most any flag player, the common thread on why they love flag (and yes, they really do), it is the atmosphere. The spirit of the team, they say, is what sets flag apart.

Unlike most high school soccer, volleyball or basketball teams, flag football isn’t a sport people have been playing since they were young. With flag, everyone starts with the same knowledge of the game – zero, which means no one is expected to be great at first.

This also means getting girls to show up for flag is hard. Saunders jokingly calls himself a bit of a ‘stalker.’ If he sees someone he thinks could be good, he introduces himself, tells them about the team.

You’re probably going to be awful the first time you come out, he tells the ones he talks to, but I’ll tell you if flag is worth your time or not.

As the team and its reputation grew, Saunders says his biggest recruitment tool became his players. They “work the halls,” trying to convince girls to take a chance on a sport they have never played.

It’s far from a perfect system, but for a team that will end up with slightly over 30 players, having 48 try out and 70 show up in the off-season means something’s working.

I just fell in love with the sport”

— Megan Bohan, Varsity Captain

“My freshman year I played soccer and I got really connected with the team…and they all played flag so I was like ‘I might as well try’ because I didn’t want to lose the team,” said Megan Bohan (‘16), now an outside receiver and linebacker.

“My coach actually cut me the first time he saw me play, but Saunders put me on the team because he had faith in me. After that, I just fell in love with the sport.”

Bohan, who in 2014 was the only sophomore on varsity, is one of the four varsity captains who lead the 16-person lineup. This year’s motto: #getback, as in, get back to the state finals game for the second year in a row.

Last year, they got the upset win over defending champions Seminole Ridge, beating them 7-6.

We are just trying to go for a repeat, trying to prove it wasn’t a fluke”

— Kelly Dorsey

“When Erin kneeled, that’s when I knew the game was over. [After we shook hands] one of my friends asked me, ‘How did you do?” and I texted him and I said, ‘We won’ and then it kind of hit me, like ‘oh my god, we won states’,” said varsity player Kelly Dorsey (‘16).

Dorsey’s older sister, Erin, is the starting quarterback and a captain for the Knights. Behind her, the players hope to contend for the title once again.

“There’s that quote where getting to the top is one thing but staying on the top is a lot harder so we are just trying to go for a repeat, trying to prove it wasn’t a fluke,” said Kelly.

If they win, they will be the only team in school history to win two state championships. They’d go down, at least for the time being, as Robinson’s winningest team, their accolades etched onto the gym walls, a reminder of the players to come of their successes.

For Knowlton, what’s left behind for the next generation is personal.

I want to go down in the history books as that player you want to strive to be”

— Kayla Knowlton

She’s always been told she has to be “the next Kylee,” says Saunders. Now, with two years under her belt, she has her chance to step out of Gorngpratum’s shadow.

“I want to be first-all state, I want to go to the All-Star games, I want to have the most interceptions, I want to have the most caught balls- I just want to be more than another player,” said Knowlton.

“I want to go down in the history books as that player you want to strive to be. That’s my legacy. That’s my goal.”